Choose Life: End the Death Penalty

Sister Helen's work with Patrick Sonnier and her campaign against the death penalty.
vidar nordli-mathisen choose life.jpg

Image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen / Unsplash

“Hey, Sister Helen, you want to be a pen pal to somebody on death row?”

This is how it started, several years ago now. Someone asked me a simple question.

I just said, “Sure. Give me his name.”

God works in a sneaky, sneaky way. Sure, I could write a few letters. But then the person wrote back! A little bitty trickle of water, and next thing I know it's a stream, next thing I know it's whitewater rapids. The next thing I know I am accompanying this human being, Patrick Sonnier, to his execution, walking with him with my hand on his shoulder.

He had tried to protect me. We had known each other for two and a half years. “Look, Sister,” he said, “you've been great, and you've been with me. Just pray God holds up my legs. But you can't be there at the end. It could psychologically scar you.” The love of him for me, trying to protect me.

That was a transforming moment in my life. You cannot be there behind a Plexiglass screen and see the scripted death of a human being — watch as he's led into the room, strapped into a chair, a mask put over his face, and killed in front of your eyes — and walk out and say, “I'm not going to do this any more. I'm going to go and work with hunger or something.” Something ignited in my soul. I got conscripted. I remember saying to myself when I came out of that execution chamber, “If the American people could really see this, they would not choose it.”

And so my mission was born — to speak about the death penalty to anybody who would hear me. This is a practice of torture, I told people. It's wrong. It's against our whole moral tradition. At the end of my talks, people would get up and say, “What about the victims? You haven't dealt with the crime!” I began to realize that I had to learn how to stand with people in that cold rage every good and decent person feels when innocent people are killed.

I began to learn. Now, if they give me an hour, I can take them through the whole journey, not only of death row inmates, but also of the crime and the outrage over the crime, the feelings of the victims' families and the guards, the people on the execution team.

“If there is a part of you outraged over crimes,” I say, “if you are saying ‘These people deserve to die,' you've got to ask yourself an honest question: ‘Am I willing to pull the switch?' If you hold back from this, and you've got to hire somebody else to do the killing, is that not a sign that there's a part of your soul that cannot say yes to this?”

I learned by telling the stories of everybody. The warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary right now, Burrough Cain, is a born-again Christian, very conflicted about the death penalty. He's been trying to get the inmates who are about to be executed to sit down with him for a last meal of Christian fellowship.

Well, it's the last afternoon of your life and you don't want to get into a big row with the warden. So the two death row inmates before Dobie Williams, the last person I accompanied to his execution, complied with the meal. “Prime Time Live” did a story about the meal with one of them, Antonio James. It was one of the most surreal things you ever saw. Sitting at the table is the warden who's going to nod to the executioner to pull the switch and some of the guards who are going to strap Antonio on the gurney. Even the lawyer who wrote the Louisiana death penalty statute is there to overcome any legal question that threatens to stop the execution. So Antonio's sitting at that table of Christian fellowship.

Then we come to my friend Dobie whom I knew for eight years. He was an African-American man, 38 years old. Some registered his IQ at 59, but in many ways he knew the essentials, and he was probably innocent. I'm writing up his story right now. He says to me, “Sister Helen, you know that meal thing with the warden and all? It's supposed to be Christian fellowship and all?” He says, “Sister Helen, I don't know if that's like real Christian fellowship.” I say, “Dobie, I'm with you, Dobie.” He says, “You know, when it's over and all, they all goin' get up, and you know, they gonna kill me.” And I say, “That's right, Dobie.” He says, “I'm not doing that meal.” Well, that threw the warden into a tizzy. But Dobie didn't do the last meal with the warden and the executioners sitting around.

The power of religious or spiritual groups to change things cannot be overestimated. When the Pope wrote his encyclical “The Gospel of Life” in 1995, he talked about how all human life has dignity, how modern societies have an alternative now, in incarceration, to incapacitate violent people so we don't have to kill them. But he left a big old loophole. The loophole said, “But in cases of absolute necessity, the state can execute.” That happened in 1995.

Then in 1997, a man by the name of Joseph O'Dell, about to be executed by the state of Virginia, says, “If you do the DNA test it will show my innocence.”

“Naw,” they go, “you can't have the DNA test.” Virginia has this terrible 21-day rule that if you're going to show evidence of innocence, you have to show it within 21 days after your trial or no Virginia court will hear it.

Here's Joseph O'Dell asking for a DNA test, and Virginia won't let him have it. But now there's an international connection. We're one world now. A member of the Italian parliament by the name of Luciano Nari sees a little clip in the paper. “Hey, here's this man Joseph O'Dell in Virginia. He's asking for a DNA test, and they won't let him have the DNA test. Why not?” He makes a call to Washington, DC, and hooks up with Laurie Urs, who had become an advocate through the Centurion Project.

The Italian Parliament sends a delegation over to visit with Joseph O'Dell. They ask to see the governor of Virginia. He won't see them. He doesn't want this bunch of Italians coming in asking about Joseph O'Dell. They go back and start spreading the word in Italy about Joseph O'Dell. If you go to Italy today and say “Joseph O'Dell,” they know him like Princess Di. His name is everywhere! “Joseph O'Dell, Joseph O'Dell. They're trying to execute this man in Virginia.” They started holding public demonstrations in St. Peter's Square in front of the Pope's window. The Pope says, “Who's Joseph O'Dell?” So the Pope gets involved, and it spreads like fire.

I'm minding my own business. I never heard of Joseph O'Dell, and I get a phone call from this young woman, Laurie Urs. She says, “Sister Helen, they're trying really hard to kill him.”

I remember how desperate I was as we moved toward the execution of Patrick Sonnier. I could hear the same urgency in Laurie's voice. She says, “Sister Helen, since the movie, people know who you are. We want to have a press conference in Richmond, and we think if you come, you could draw the press, and then we can talk to them about Joseph's case. Maybe we can save his life.”

I say, “Sure, I'll come.” It's the sneaky part of God at work.

So now I'm involved with Joseph O'Dell. The Italians come over, and the next thing you know the mayor of Palermo, who will forever live in a bullet-proof car with guards around him because he took on the Mafia eight years ago, hears about Joseph O'Dell. He visits with Joseph O'Dell, and he says, “Joseph, if they kill you, we will bury you. We will make you an honorary citizen of Palermo, and we will bury you in Palermo.” Joseph says, “Well, thank you very much.”

Now mail is beginning to pour in from the Italian people to Joseph O'Dell, sacks and sacks of mail. The governor begins to get faxes and phone calls, 10,000 of them, most of them in Italian. It takes four people just to field the calls from the Italians. In the end he flicks them all off, including the Pope, including Mother Teresa. “What do I care about the Italians? We're doing justice here in Virginia.”

In the end they killed Joseph O'Dell.

Joseph had called me and said, “Will you come be with me? But especially will you be with Laurie afterwards?” Of course I said yes.

I was with Joseph O'Dell when they killed him. In Virginia, they let the spiritual adviser go right into the execution chamber, and as they strapped Joseph on the gurney, I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed with him.

When I came out, Laurie, who had tried so hard to save his life, was falling apart, coming together, falling apart, coming together. We ended up accompanying Joseph's body over to Rome and then to Palermo for him to be buried at a funeral like I never witnessed in my life. A crowd of people. When they lowered Joseph's body into the ground, people broke into applause. There was a slab on his grave that said, “Joseph O'Dell, killed by the merciless and unjust justice system in Virginia.” It's in English and it's in Italian. I placed a flower on Joseph O'Dell's grave.

Before they killed Joseph, the Italian Parliament invited Laurie Urs to go to Italy, and she gave talks all over Italy. She told the story of Joseph O'Dell.

She said, “Sister Helen, write a letter to the Pope and we'll deliver it.” So I wrote my letter to the Pope. In it I wrote about an experience that Joseph had had in August when he came close to death. He had watched three people go to the shower right outside that cell, put on the white jumpsuit, and go into the execution chamber. One of them was his good friend. He was next, and at the last minute they said, “You've got a stay of execution, go back to your cell.” He was crying. He was saying, “They almost killed me. They killed my friend.” I put all of this in the letter. I said, “Your Holiness, when we talk about the dignity of the human person, how are we going to take the torture out of the death penalty?”

I said, “Your encyclical and all that you said about the dignity of the human person was wonderful. But,” I said, “you left a really big loophole because you said the death penalty should be rare or nonexistent, but in cases of absolute necessity the state could do it.”

I said, “The Catholic district attorney in New Orleans, Harry Connick, Sr., is quoting your words saying ‘We can't get enough death penalties in Louisiana. It's always an absolute necessity.' Your words are being quoted for death, and we've got to take those words out of there.”

“All human beings have the right to life — guilty people, too. Most of the pro-life people I meet, they're pro innocent life, but they're sure not pro guilty life. Is there a difference? Was it just the innocent that Jesus came to, or is there a way that we can stand in the dignity of all human life, even those among us who have done terrible crimes?”

One week later I heard a little announcement from the Vatican: “There's going to be a change in the Catechism.” I'm thinking, “No, no, no, no ... can't be.” I wait, and sure enough, they cut out the part that says, “For grievous or heinous crimes the state can execute.”

And so we have a coalescing of the waters, a coming together of religion in its truest and deepest sense, and human rights. There's part of it in every effort we make for life and the dignity of life, every effort we make for restorative justice instead of for punitive justice, every effort we make to connect people together as neighbors. The only way we can kill each other is when we're disconnected and we're allowed to say, “Oh, they're not human the way we're human. They did this crime and it's okay to kill them.”

I think the death penalty simply epitomizes the three deepest wounds we have in our society.

One is the racism that riddles it — mostly it's when white people get killed that the death penalty is sought.

The second is our penchant for choosing the poor to pay the ultimate price and to suffer the harshest punishments, to make them the scapegoats.

Third is our habit of trying to solve our social problems with military solutions. The death penalty is one more military solution: targeting the enemy, dehumanizing the enemy, and killing the enemy.

The book of Deuteronomy says, “Look, I set before you death and life. Choose life.”



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